August 2023

When to Consider Animal-Assisted Therapy

Managing certain mental health conditions can be challenging. More and more people are interested in non-pharmacological treatment options, particularly for children. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) might be one option worth considering – it’s been studied for a wide range of medical and mental health conditions. Here’s what you should know.

Anyone with a pet knows that animals provide calm and comfort. AAT seems to help reduce stress and promote relaxation, which may then reduce symptoms in stress-related conditions. It also seems to help with feelings of loneliness and decrease perceptions of pain. When it comes to clinical data, the strongest supportive evidence is for its use in anxiety. Single sessions of various types of AAT, especially dog therapy, seem to improve anxiety in both adults and children. Sessions sometimes even reduced the need for pain medications. But most studies have only evaluated single sessions lasting 8-30 minutes – data on long-term use is limited.

Dogs and horses are the most commonly used animals in AAT. Equine-assisted therapy has been growing in popularity for some time – one clinical study shows that participating in a horseback riding program for 10 weeks improves some symptoms of autism, including irritability and hyperactivity. Another clinical study in kids with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) shows that equine therapy for 12 weeks is as effective as treatment with methylphenidate or atomoxetine 1.2 mg/kg. But differences in the duration of treatment and reported outcomes make it difficult to determine which symptoms, if any, are most likely to improve.

Check out our recently updated monograph to learn about these and other uses, including some recent research in children with cerebral palsy.

The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.